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Category: Lessons

Rhythmic Displacement Part 2: Snarky Puppy – ‘What About Me?’

One of the most popular posts on this blog is a transcription of a Meshuggah tune that features some interesting rhythmic displacement ideas. Here’s a transcription in a similar vein…

One of the most popular posts on this blog is a transcription of a Meshuggah tune that features some interesting rhythmic displacement ideas. Here’s a transcription in a similar vein but from a more mainstream (and less angry) source, the heavily syncopated unison line in Snarky Puppy’s ‘What About Me?’:

The section I’ve written out comes at 45s into the track, and is featured again around the 5 minute mark:

Snarky Puppy - What About Me?

Just as in the Meshuggah transcription, the part here gets displaced when it repeats itself, creating an interesting rhythmic effect as the accented melody notes shift (compare bar 1 with bar 3).

This is a real test of your semiquaver rhythm reading abilities, but playing-wise most of the line is straightforward E minor pentatonic and falls under the fingers without too much trouble. The final run is worth taking your time over –  a minor pentatonic played in groups of 5 but phrased in semiquavers which has a strong Jaco influence to it.

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7 Steps To Better Practice

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’…

We’re already a month into 2014 and I’m willing to bet that many of us who made New Year’s resolutions along the lines of ‘I’m going to do more practice’ or ‘I’ll get better at bass’ have already started to let things slip. This post deals with how to make the most of your practice time and create a routine that is both effective and sustainable.

The bulk of the information in this post is concerned with the why and how of practising rather than the what – everyone has different things that need attention so I’m reluctant to give advice on the content of your practice schedule.

A brief disclaimer: all of this is based on my personal experience of what works best for me and my practice routine. This is not the only way to do things, but I’ve had positive feedback from many students regarding the concepts outlined in this post. I’m always open to alternative strategies, so if there’s something that works for you but isn’t covered here then leave a comment to let me know…

In keeping with the New Year theme of the post, I’ve organised things along the lines of a meal (my main non-musical obsession is food). Think of this as a new musical diet plan for 2014.


1. Practising vs. Playing

The first step is making the distinction between practising and playing. 

Practising allows you to hone in around on the areas of music (note that I didn’t say ‘bass playing’) that are currently outside of your comfort zone. These could involve instrumental technique, application of harmonic/melodic ideas, sight reading, ear training or knowledge of music theory.

Playing covers situations where you’re in your comfort zone, often playing material that you can already play well. This includes gigs/rehearsals/jamming/noodling, all of which are enjoyable but aren’t stretching your playing and therefore won’t result in significant improvement.

In order to maximise your musical development, you need to strike the balance between practising and playing. If all you do is practise, then you deny yourself the opportunity to apply all of the things that you’ve been working on in a ‘real world’ scenario. On the other hand, if all you do is play then you run the risk of getting stuck in a rut and never evolving as a musician.

I use playing situations (gigs/rehearsals etc) as a measure of how well my practice schedule is working. We’re all the best player in the world in the safety of our own practice rooms, but in a performance environment things feel very different. I find that recording gigs and later critiquing my performance is one of the most effective (and painful) strategies for establishing which concepts have worked their way into my playing and which still need work.

2. Reality Checks

Getting a second opinion on your playing is hugely important for your musical development. I find it difficult to be entirely objective about my playing (particularly while I’m in the act of performing) so I make an effort to seek constructive criticism from people who I respect musically.

More often than not these ‘critical friends’ are other musicians that I’m on a gig with, but I also try and take lessons whenever I can. Having a mentor who gives me a brutally honest assessment of my playing inspires me to put more hours of practice time in, informs the content of my practice time and helps to keep my ego in check.

Some people find it odd that I still continue to take lessons even though I make my living through gigging and teaching (“…I thought you knew how to play bass?!”) but I feel that continuing to study music with someone more knowledgeable than myself is the only way to ensure that I keep growing as a musician. Michael Brecker continued to have a coach long into his career and Mike Stern studied with the same teacher for almost 30 years. If it’s good enough for them then it’s good enough for me (important note – I am in NO WAY comparing myself to either Brecker or Stern…)

3. Goal Setting

Make a list of all the things that you’d like to change about your playing. Focus on 2 or 3 areas in particular and write a set of related goals that are measurable. Once you’ve established what you’re aiming for you can then choose (or create) appropriate exercises that will help bring you closer to your goals.

It’s also wise to ask yourself why you’re practising certain things – how will what you’re about to work on bring you closer to your goals? If you can’t directly trace how a particular exercise will improve a specific area of your playing then cut it out of your practice regime.



My preference is to divide my practice time into small ‘chunks’ rather than working on anything for a protracted length of time. I find that 15-20 minutes of focused practice interspersed with short (2-3 minute) breaks produces the best results. I started this approach after going to a masterclass with Todd Johnson in which he suggested using a similar approach; I almost immediately found that I seemed to be getting more practice done in less time than previously and that I retained more information on a day-to-day basis.

Let’s say you have 3 areas that you need to work on (e.g. ear training, reading and repertoire) and you have about an hour a day of practice time. A sample ‘chunking’ routine would look like this:

15 mins on Topic A

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic B

-3 min break

15 mins on Topic C

-3 min break

At this point you still might have time for another chunk, so go back and spend more time on the topic that you feel weakest on.

15 mins on Topic B

A small note on breaks – be disciplined and use a timer! 3 minutes easily become 5 minutes which easily become 10 minutes which easily become…

Having more than an hour to practice allows for more opportunities to revisit topics multiple times over the course of a practice session without losing focus or suffering information overload.

I’ve been using this method for 5 years or so and find that it allows me to do a relatively high volume of practice and not feel exhausted afterwards. The concept of alternating intensely focused periods of work with brief rest periods is well established amongst athletes and academics alike (see the ‘resources’ section below for literature on this subject).


One issue that almost everyone that I talk to mentions is not having enough time to practice. One way to get around this is to have two (or more) practice routines that you cycle through on alternating days – an ‘A’ routine and a ‘B’ routine. Again, this is nothing new – athletes do this all the time.

Let’s imagine that you have the following areas to work on:

  • Sight reading
  • Arpeggios
  • Repertoire

Now let’s think about some of the possible variables for each of these areas:

i. Sight Reading

  • Rhythm reading (no pitch variation)
  • Pitch recognition (no rhythmic variation)
  • Combination reading (‘real’ music)
  • Reading in different clefs (treble/tenor/alto)

ii. Arpeggios

  • Different chord types (major/minor/augmented/diminished/suspended)
  • Transposition through all keys
  • Single string vs. multi-string (2-6 string, depending on your instrument)
  • Inversions

iii. Repertoire

  • Transcription of material to be learnt
  • Memorisation of new material
  • Revision of existing repertoire

If we combine the idea of rotating with some ‘chunks’ we begin to get an idea of what an alternating practice schedule looks like.

Here’s a sample ‘A’ routine:

-15 minutes on rhythm reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (#s), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes on learning new repertoire

The sample ‘B’ routine might look something like this:

-15 minutes on pitch reading

-3 min break

-15 minutes on arpeggios in 6 keys (bs), single string and multi-string

-3 min break

-15 minutes revising existing repertoire

Splitting your practice routine in this way means that you can still make significant improvements to your playing without having to work on every element each day.

This is a very brief (and simplified) overview, but it should give you an idea of how to apply the concept to whatever you’re working on. It may seem really obvious, but I’m surprised at how many people who come to me for lessons complain of not having enough practice time because they’re trying to do everything every day.


This is one of the most crucial areas of any practice routine – and one that is often overlooked by many players. The act of keeping a record of what you practice helps to keep track of your progress over a given period of time and make adjustments if necessary.

I have two methods of logging my practice time: a practice diary and a checklist. These represent the micro and the macro aspects of practice. In the diary I keep a record of the exercises I do every day, together with notes on which keys/chord types/tempo ranges I’ve worked on:

This has largely replaced my short term memory...

I find this really useful on a purely practical basis, as my preference for ‘chunking’ means that I tend to be working on lots of different things and my short term memory is terrible.

The purpose of the checklist is for tracking progress towards longer term goals – mostly related to repertoire, transcriptions and technical exercises. I keep the checklist on a whiteboard that stays in my office as a visible reminder that I always have things to be working on…



One of the biggest sticking points that I’ve encountered when it comes to practising is maintaining motivation. When I’m busy with teaching and gigs and I get a few hours off, practising is not always the most appealing option. I have a number of strategies that I use to make sure that I keep pushing myself:

i. Visible Reminders

This is the first thing I see when i wake up. It helps set the tone for the day:

Bass wall hanger

Along with the Whiteboard Of Doom (see ‘tracking’), these are part of a series of things that I have around my house to remind me that there’s always work to be done.

Awkward confession time… I’m also one of those people that owns motivational crockery:

SmugCringeworthy, but surprisingly effective.

ii. Books

All of these have helped to shape my musical development in some way:

LibraryYes, there’s a cookbook in there. And yes, that is Arnie’s biography. Both have proved to be unusual sources of wisdom.

There are several books in particular that contain great advice on strategies for keeping to your resolutions (musical or otherwise); Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds and Switch by Chip & Dan Heath both include strategies for making resolutions stick, while Outliers and The Talent Code are both great for reminding yourself that great players are made, not born.

An area that I’d strongly recommend looking into (before you investigate anything else in this post) is time management-The Four Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs are good starting points (my mentor put me on to the second book after I complained that I didn’t have enough time to practice…).

So there you have it – try some of these ideas and let me know if they work for you.

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A Tribute to Dave Brubeck (and a rant about Marcus Miller)

As a little tribute to the late Dave Brubeck here’s a transcription of Paul Desmond’s sax solo on ‘Take Five’. Transcription here: Take Five solo (concert) This was actually my…

As a little tribute to the late Dave Brubeck here’s a transcription of Paul Desmond’s sax solo on ‘Take Five’.

Transcription here: Take Five solo (concert)

This was actually my first proper non-bass transcription, given to me as an assignment during a lesson with the great arranger/producer/guitarist/educator Richard Niles. If you haven’t heard of Richard then seek out his work – he not only possesses a terrifying amount of musical knowledge but also has a wonderful sense of humour.

Transcribing material that wasn’t originally played on your own instrument is a great way of expanding your musical horizons and often helps to generate fresh ideas for improvisation. When playing through this transcription, you might find that certain notes are outside of the range of your instrument and therefore certain phrases need to be octave transposed.

This process of arranging music played by non-bass instruments on a bass is valuable in a number of ways:

  • Phrases that are easily played on a saxophone (or piano/trumpet/guitar etc.) might not fit comfortably under your fingers on the bass. This helps to not only develop your technique but helps you stop reverting back to the same old licks when the time comes for you to solo.
  • While dissecting the solo, certain phrases might jump out at you. Use these to build new vocabulary for the bass. Work out a few different fingerings for the phrase and play it through all keys (you may want to alter the rhythmic content and retain the melody, or vice versa).
  • Examining improvisations from other instruments gives a unique insight into how different players approach improvising over chord changes. Using material that comes from a ‘non-bass’ perspective is hugely beneficial in developing your own personal voice on your instrument (a horribly clichéd phrase, but true nonetheless).

Why bother transcribing other instruments?

So, why not just focus on bass? I spent a lot of time during my teens learning licks and solos from Marcus Miller – I remember hearing listening to his M2 album and instantly being drawn towards his tone and phrasing. I wanted to sound exactly like him. During my first year at music college I got hold of a transcription of Marcus’ intro solo and slap line on David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’:

I proceeded to spend my Christmas holiday that year shedding it like crazy. I loved playing it. Soon enough everything I played was beginning to sound like a budget version of Marcus. Classmates started to nickname me ‘mini-Marcus’. I’d listen back to recordings from gigs and cringe at what I’d played (important note: this never stops…). Having spent so long trying to get his ideas into my playing I’d lost sight of working on what I sounded like.

So I entered slap-bass rehab: I banned myself from listening to Marcus for a few years and tried to eliminate all traces of him from my playing. I went on a crusade to transcribe as many solos as I could with only one rule in mind: I couldn’t transcribe bass solos. Transcribing solos from other instruments helped to open my ears to all sorts of things I’d never thought of playing on a bass before, all of which suddenly seemed more interesting than chasing after another bassist’s sound.

This post is not meant as a slight towards Marcus Miller or anyone that wants to emulate any part of his playing (or that of any other bassist). For me the act of focusing all of my attention on one particular bassist had a detrimental effect on my musical development.

(Confession time: I listened to Marcus for the first time in years while writing this post and I loved it. He’s a monster. Still won’t be getting my thumb out on any gigs in the near future though…)

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Rhythmic Displacement: Meshuggah’s ‘Do Not Look Down’

I have a confession to make: Although I have a deep appreciation of all things musical there’s one genre that I always come back to… metal. Proper metal. Played by…

I have a confession to make: Although I have a deep appreciation of all things musical there’s one genre that I always come back to… metal. Proper metal. Played by angry men with pointy guitars and beards; I was raised on classic rock (Led Zep, Sabbath, Deep Purple etc) and from there I spent my teens exploring the heavier end of the musical spectrum – I went through thrash metal (early Metallica/Megadeth), briefly delved into death metal (Carcass, Opeth, Children of Bodom) and even a had dubious metalcore phase before finding a handful of bands that made the sort of noise that really appealed to me…

One of those bands is Meshuggah.

This track caught my attention because it clearly highlights one of the band’s trademark writing techniques; the interwebs are littered with people asking ‘What time signature is this Meshuggah tune in?’. Whilst the majority of Meshuggah’s compositions sound as if they’re in odd time signatures the vast majority are in 4/4 – it just seems that the guitars have a healthy disregard for bar lines…


Djently Does It

The intro of ‘Do Not Look Down’ comprises of a unison guitar/bass figure that lasts for 17 quavers (or their equivalent) before repeating. When played over a drum part that in 4/4 this creates a shifting rhythmic effect where the accent at the start of the figure emphasises a different point in the bar each time it repeats.

The accent first falls on beat 1, then the ‘and’ of 1, then beat 2 etc. After 7 cycles we’re back to starting on beat 1 again. This could also be written as alternating bars of 4/4 and 9/8, or in the horrendous meter of 17/8, but what we’re really hearing is the effect of two different time signatures being played at the same time (i.e. polymetric playing)

The main purpose of this post is to highlight the concept of using polymetric devices to add a new dimension to compositions. This idea could easily be adapted to create basslines that use odd groupings of quavers (e.g. 5, 7 or 9) to create rhythmic tension when played over a drum part in 4/4.

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